Numbers conflict in reports of Penn’s campus crime

PHILADELPHIA (College Press Exchange — Armed robberies in the shadow of college buildings. A student shot and wounded in September. A researcher stabbed to death walking home from his lab.
Throughout the security crisis at the University of Pennsylvania this fall, worried students have demanded more protection from an administration that has responded on many fronts, including by hiring more campus police.
How dangerous is the campus?
That depends who’s counting the crimes.
In a federally required report intended to help parents and students evaluate campus safety, university officials listed 18 1995 campus robberies — both armed and strong-arm. It’s the same number they reported to the state police in Harrisburg under the Pennsylvania campus-crime law.
Yet an internal Penn printout obtained by the Inquirer and authenticated by university officials shows 181 robberies that year within the 125-square-block area patrolled by the campus police.
Why the tenfold difference?
It’s all in how Penn administrators define the campus, an amorphous sprawl of pedestrian malls and city streets, with boundaries that slice between the ground floors and upper stories of some Penn-owned buildings, and fringe areas that don’t fit neatly within the borders of its police patrol area.
On the other hand, Penn officials maintain that adjacent public spaces, such as city streets and sidewalks, or properties the university owns but leases to businesses, are deemed off-campus for the purposes of the annual report of crimes that colleges and universities are required to compile by federal law.
Such properties are managed by University City Associates Inc., a Penn-controlled real estate holding company founded in 1963. Although UCA’s offices are in the campus administration building, and Penn’s treasurer, associate treasurer and associate vice president for finance are all officers of UCA, UCA properties are deemed off-campus, say Penn police.
Critics say Penn’s way of counting crimes is so narrow that it defies common sense and provides misleading information about student safety.
“I would think that anything within the boundaries of the campus would be considered on-campus. It looks like they’re just looking for a technical way out,” said Rep. Howard P. McKeon, R-Calif., co-sponsor of a recent U.S. House resolution that urged the U.S. Department of Education to step up its monitoring of the way universities report crime.
Penn says that student safety is its highest priority and that it follows both the letter and spirit of the law, counting crimes the way many other schools do.
Although Penn police respond to all emergency calls in their jurisdiction, the coding of crimes is “done behind the scenes, much like any police department. Incident locations are all looked at and evaluated,” said Joseph Weaver, the Penn police lieutenant whose three-member unit does the coding.
Even inside the department, it’s a controversial call.
“That’s always been a big issue amongst patrol officers. Something that occurs on the sidewalk can be classified as off-campus. That really doesn’t make sense to us,” said a Penn police officer who asked not to be named.
Merchants in West Philadelphia say Penn police often are the first to respond to incidents in the jurisdiction they share with the city’s 18th Police District. When Penn responds or receives information about a crime that the city has handled, the incident is logged in the campus police blotter, which is open to the public and available for publication in campus media, Penn police officials said.
When they label crimes “OC” as they did with more than 90 percent of the 1995 robberies in their patrol area, those crimes go uncounted in the annual survey the federal government has required since the passage of the 1990 Student Right-to-Know and Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act. The law, which took effect in 1992, was designed to cure underreporting of campus crimes by image-sensitive schools.
The law requires that the survey include murders, sex offenses, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries and motor-vehicle thefts and be released on request to all students, employees, prospective students and prospective employees. Penn officials say the university scrupulously complies by sending the statistics out with admissions applications.
While parents and students don’t generally rely on crime data alone to choose a college, the statistics are a growing part of the equation.
In a world that can seem dangerous everywhere, “the degree that you consider something like that definitely has to be higher than it used to be,” said Jeffrey Waranch, a 1967 Penn graduate living in Baltimore. Waranch’s daughter Rebecca is a senior at Penn.
“I would be concerned no matter where she was. But she’s in the heart of a big city. And I’ve gotten the impression that things are much more dangerous than they used to be,” Waranch said.